Summing up the year in religion isn’t easy when one of the stories involved the eBay auction of a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich bearing what the seller described as an image of the Virgin Mary. The news was that it sold for $28,000.
The buyer was an online casino that said it considered the sandwich a piece of pop art. The seller was a Florida homemaker who called the sandwich lucky – it helped her win $70,000 playing the slots, she said.
And 2004 was also the year a dozen members of Congress hosted a reception in the Senate Building for the founder of the Unification Church, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who was crowned there in a ritual proclaiming him the “Second Coming.” He used the occasion to announce that thanks to him, Hitler and Stalin had been “born again.”
A judge in Covington County, Ala., began wearing a robe with the 10 Commandments embroidered on the front in gold. “They help judges know the difference between right and wrong,” he told a lawyer who objected on behalf of a client accused of drunken driving.
The Salvation Army received a $1.5 billion bequest from Joan Kroc, widow of the man who gave the world Big Macs. On the other hand, the Salvation Army’s bell ringers and red kettles, a major beneficiary of charitable giving during the Christmas holidays, were barred from soliciting by the Target department-store chain. Store executives said it was only fair – they bar any soliciting by any organization.
It was a fairly quiet year for the frail and ailing Pope John Paul, 84, who moved up to No. 3 in the ranks of the longest-reigning pontiffs. He’s occupied the papacy for 26 years, and if the prayers of the faithful mean anything, will move up to No. 2 (behind only St. Peter) in June 2010.
According to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the role of religion in the election of President Bush and the controversy surrounding the Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ,” tied as the top religion stories of 2004.
Bush’s election, with its overtones of “moral values,” raised a national debate over the place of evangelical Christianity in public policy. The arguments about “Passion” focused on its possible anti-Semitism and whether it was faithful to scripture.
The rest of the association’s Top 10, in order:
Same-sex marriage. Religious groups mobilized on both sides of an issue that showed no sign of early resolution, and courts and voters made it a legal and political hot potato.
The decision by several Catholic bishops to deny communion to politicians they deem out of step with church teaching on abortion, a move triggered by the nomination of Sen. John Kerry as the Democratic presidential candidate.
The continuing fallout, and threatened split, in the worldwide Anglican movement over ordaining gay clergy.
Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing “under God” to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance but forbidding the use of public funds for scholarships for seminary students.
The continuing debate among religious groups over the role of the United States in Iraq
The defrocking of a lesbian pastor by the United Methodist Church, raising the stakes in a divisive ongoing dispute among liberal Protestants over gay rights.
Settlements in several Catholic dioceses with victims of sexual abuse by priests. The cost led bishops in Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Tucson to file for bankruptcy.
Continuing religious tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a threat by some Presbyterian churches to stop investing in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
That list omits several major stories, among them an increasingly heated campaign by the Christian Right to introduce creationism – under the guise of “Intelligent Design” – in the teaching of science in public schools. In several states, school boards have ordered the use of warning labels on biology books, telling students that evolution is merely a theory.
In other news, Israeli authorities charged antique dealers and collectors with forging biblical artifacts, notably an ossuary (a container for bones) that reputedly held the remains of James, the brother of Jesus.
All this, and another year on the best-seller list for “The Da Vinci Code.”